With drag shows every Friday and Saturday, Big Wigs draws big crowds, gay and straight

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune

Big Wigs, Ames’ only gay bar, has been staging drag shows every Friday and Saturday night to large crowds since it opened in October.

Also Ames’ only bar to cater to the 18 and older crowd – you have to be 21 to drink alcohol, of course – this weekend Big Wigs is celebrating the birthday of its owner Rusty Brammer, whose stage name is Vanessa Taylor.

The drag show starts at 10:30 p.m. Saturday and will feature Iowa's most award-winning showcast, Taylor said. With performers like Dominique Cass, Synitha DeMornay-Sanchez, JV Monroe and Lieza Diamond, Big Wigs offers a lineup every weekend that reflects Taylor’s longevity in the industry and the connections she’s made in the past 20 years.

The venue at 6008 W. Lincoln Way was the location of the Cornucopia and prior to that The Broiler. Taylor took us on a tour of the building earlier this month.

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The main bar is in the former retail area of restaurant and gift shop of Cornucopia.

“When The Broiler was here, this was the main dining room,” Taylor said of the main bar. “And that was the private dining area, which is now our dressing room.”

With a large chandelier in the main dressing room area, there are separate, private dressing rooms for the entertainers.

“Nobody in Iowa has this,” Taylor said of the dressing rooms. “No bar in Iowa has this for the drag queens, and very few in the Midwest have it.

“Most bars have just a room, maybe in the basement or a back room, set up with mirrors. It wouldn’t be anything like this. This is fancy.”

Vanessa Taylor performs during the Drag Shows at Big Wigs bar on Lincoln Way last Saturday.

The weekend of Jan. 28, Big Wigs hosted the Miss Gay Iowa USofA Pageant, which is the preliminary to Miss Gay USofA. It’s a pageant Taylor has been involved with for years.

With a commercial kitchen onsite, Big Wigs is ramping up its food menu. Currently the bar is serving flatbread pizza, cheesy flatbread and pretzel bites.

“We’re starting out slow to get the hang of it. We want the food to be good and then we’ll grow the menu from there,” Taylor said.

Vanessa Taylor interacts with the audience while performing at  Big Wigs bar.

There are two drag shows are every Friday and Saturday: 10 p.m. and midnight. Check the bar’s Facebook page for possible changes in schedule.

On Thursday nights, Big Wigs stages Man Candy shows at 10 p.m.

There’s no cover charge on for Piano Night singalongs on Tuesdays from 8 to 10 p.m. and for Karaoke Night on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

For Vanessa Taylor, who has a long history of drag in Iowa, this has been a great opportunity.

The gay bar Studio Cafe on the east side of Ames closed the week Taylor moved to Nevada in 2001, so she didn’t get the opportunity to perform there.

Roxi Manacoochi performs during the Drag Shows at  Big Wigs.

Undaunted, Taylor started a monthly drag show at Boheme Bistro, which is now Mother’s Pub.

“We performed to sold-out crowds,” Taylor said.

She wanted to increase the number of shows beyond once a month and moved the performances to Bali Satay on Campustown, where she organized and performed in drag shows.

“I ended up doing shows there every Tuesday for about four years,” Taylor said.

Shows then moved next door to Headliners, which used to be Peoples.

“For nine years, I did drags shows at straight bars in Ames,” she said. “I actually even did one show here a long time ago when it was The Broiler.”

Taylor left the Ames area to live in Omaha, then in 2013, she became co-owner of The Garden, a gay bar in Des Moines, where she was a partner for two years.

Synitha Demornay Sanchez performs at  Big Wigs bar.

“I decided I needed some time away from the nightclub lifestyle, so I got out of The Garden and also the pageant, which I had for three years starting in 2012,” Taylor said.

Taylor had a full-time career as an office manager for a construction contractor in Minneapolis, and when COVID-19 hit and she started to rethink her career.

“I always thought Ames needed a gay bar,” Taylor said. “There was one years ago in the same building as the Studio Cafe called the Ruby Slipper, but it didn’t last very long.

“I always thought that if Iowa City could support a gay bar, there’s no reason Ames can’t.”

Dominique Cass performs during a recent Drag Show at  Big Wigs.

Taylor said it’s fortunate that society has changed to the point where most spaces are safe for the LGBTQ community, so maybe there’s not as much “need” for a gay bar.

“But Big Wigs is a place where we can really celebrate our community,” she said. “And we have a lot of allies. I’d say about 90% of our clientele is straight – they just love our drag shows.

“Our drag shows are on a different level than what most places can offer. I have connections that most people don’t have since I’ve been in the business for 26 years.”

For example, one a recent weekend, Big Wigs brought Miss Gay USofA 2015 Mokha Montrese to Ames from Chicago.

Drag posters display in the Big Wigs bar, on Lincoln Way, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, Ames, Iowa.

“She’s won almost every national title, and I’ve known her since the late ‘90s. Most people probably wouldn’t have been able to get her out of Chicago, but I did,” Taylor said.

For Taylor’s 46th birthday weekend, Dena Cass will be performing Saturday night.

“Dena was on the Ricki Lake show years ago and other talk shows,” Taylor said. “You know, back then about the only place you could be in drag on TV was on talk shows like that.

“But things have changed so much. Now you have trans people on great dramas at night. It’s not like it used to be.”

Cass lived in Iowa for many years and has won six national titles.

“She’s really a legend in Iowa, for sure,” Taylor said.